Asia waits patiently till Trump and Kim choose to talk
It is perplexing not to know for sure whether the eagerly anticipated summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un will take place as promised in Singapore this June. Asia’s diplomats have made immense efforts to persuade the two leaders to square up face-to-face. But like everyone else, they are left checking their Twitter feeds to find out the status of the meeting.
The uncertainty must be particularly frustrating for South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in, who was blindsided by Mr Trump’s attempt to cancel the summit in May. Mr Moon is displaying immense patience as he skilfully shuttles between the two adversaries as their key intermediary. Mr Moon notes that ‘the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and the establishment of a permanent peace are historic tasks that can neither be abandoned nor delayed’.
As he tries to get the summit back on track, the South Korean leader can take encouragement from recent tangible signs of progress. There have been no nuclear tests by North Korea since September 2017, and three American citizens who were held prisoner were released in May.
These developments have improved the image of North Korea and have helped create the impression of Kim Jong-un as a statesman, rather than a crazed dictator. But in Japan, Mr Kim remains a sinister figure who has threatened to obliterate Tokyo. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called the prospect of a nuclear-capable North Korea ‘absolutely unacceptable’ and said the security situation facing his country is the severest since the Second World War. Quite understandably, Mr Abe wants Mr Trump to use America’s enormous military advantage to press North Korea into line.
Yet Mr Abe cannot completely trust his ally. The worry is that Donald Trump might become so focused on his America First agenda that he will compromise on protection of its allies in Asia. Kim Jong-un is likely to say that any offer to scale back his nuclear programme should be balanced by a reduction of the American military presence in South Korea and Japan. Would Mr Trump offer concessions on that point if he felt he could extract a deal which would protect US cities from missile attacks?
China’s primary goal is for peace in the region and the avoidance of conflict between North Korea and the Americans. It therefore encourages
North Korea to talk to the US directly. China also hopes for a deal which would lessen the level of US military engagement in Asia.
The proposed Singapore summit is an event in which many Asian people are heavily emotionally invested. Mr Trump’s emotions are hard to read, especially due to his ploy of using mood swings as a negotiating tactic. But he has used his Tweets to say that he expects the summit to be a ‘very big success’. He apparently also relishes the suggestion – made by South Korea’s President Moon – that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.
However, the threat of war will still hang over the region until there is a clear consensus on what – in a Korean context – a peace deal and denuclearisation actually mean. One way of finding agreement is through a summit. For the talks to succeed, though, they will need to take place out of the public eye, with a carefully-prepared agenda and with the full support of other Asian countries.